3200Stories had the chance to interview the Israeli filmmaker Dror Moreh, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers, a month or so before it opened in Bay Area theaters in February 2013. If he was an unknown in the United States before then, he quickly made major headway, between interviews with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and NPR’s Robert Siegel and advance reviews of his jaw-dropping film about the Israeli secret service in virtually every medium that matters. Nominated for the coveted “Best documentary feature” award, he hob-nobbed with the likes of Ben Affleck during the Oscar ceremony on Feb. 24.
He may not yet be an American household name. More important to Moreh is that people just see this film. Not only because it is the masterpiece of his professional life so far, but because he is passionate about what he has been able to reveal in the film, and the potential impact of doing so.
As a review in Tablet magazine pointed out, there were two films about terrorism on the Oscar nominees listfor 2012: The Gatekeepers and the American feature film Zero Dark Thirty. Actually three, if you include ‘the other” excellent documentary, Five Broken Cameras, the only one from a Palestinian perspective.
But while Zero Dark Thirty was the movie with which more Americans were familiar, The Gatekeepers was the one that Tablet reviewer Judith Miller, among others, said should win. She describes it as a “tough minded documentary” about the Israeli version of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and targeted assassinations intended to thwart terrorist acts and control the Occupied Territories.
The 95-minute film, built upon in-depth interviews with the last six former directors of the Shin Bet -- Israel's internal security and counter-terrorism apparatus -- derives its authority from theirs. One by one, independently of one another, they opine that based on their experiences, the counterterrorism (or counter insurgency) techniques used are not only politically and pragmatically ineffective, but are contributing to the moral decline of the state of Israel.
It would be different, wouldn't it, if such conclusions were coming from just about anyone else.
For the record, this may have been the first time in my journalism career that I actually got to interview someone before Christiane Amanpour. I had seen the film at a press preview before our meeting at a downtown hotel where Moreh was holding court during a whirlwind promotional tour. Warm, genuine, and direct in manner, the 51 year old filmmaker has a habit of prefacing his remarks with the word “Look” -- just like someone he admires very much: President Obama. He was no more passionate about his film than about the critical historical moment at which Israel has arrived.
Moreh was eager to discuss the reaction of American audiences to “The Gatekeepers,” especially amongst the American Jewish community. But since this was his first visit to San Francisco, he had reserved for himself a few precious hours to see the city before another preview at the Embarcadero cinema. Later that night, before the screening, he told me that San Francisco was the most beautiful city he had ever seen, and that he would gladly come again.
This Tuesday, November 26, at 5 p.m., the JCCSF will present a FREE screening of "The Gatekeepers," followed at 7 p.m. by a live, on stage discussion with Peter Stein and the film's director. Welcome back, Mr. Moreh.
For tickets and information, go to https://www.jccsf.org/arts-ideas/lectures/jewish/dror-moreh-on-the-gatekeepers/
What follows is an excerpted version of our interview.
3200Stories: My sense was that this is an extremely important film, perhaps one that many people have been waiting for. It echoed that moment during the Vietnam War when people within the US Department of Defense and the State Department began to speak from their real, personal views rather than parroting the offical line...and that break with the offical story, that act of speaking from their conscience, signaled a turning point in that conflict when Americans began to realize that a broad spectrum of society had concerns about it.
Moreh: I hope that this will happen with my film. This was the intention: to bring [forward] the center of the center of the Defense Establishment in Israel, the people that are most responsible for the conflict, the people that have spent their life maintaining that conflict, dealing with all the consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on both sides -- the Jewish extremism and the Palestinian extremism -- that use force most of their life to supress uprisings, and whatever, that tortured people, that target-assassinate people, that use all methods in order to get their goals -- and not one of them refused to come to [Ed. note: i.e., be interviewed for] the movie. All of the six living heads of the Israeli Secret service, the Shin Bet, agreed to speak, sending a very clear message to the Israelis, to the Palestinians and to the international community.
3200 Stories: It was astonishing the kind of information and statements you got from them. But I wonder, are you the kind of documentary film maker who goes into a film with an agenda, for the purpose of crafting a message? Or are you the kind who just lets the subjects speak, and allows whatever truth they possess to come forward?
Moreh: I definitely allow the subject to speak. But while doing that I have an agenda. I have something that is in me, but I’m not forcing my beliefs or my thoughts on the subjects. I mean, this is the head of the Shin Bet: you cannot force them to say what they don’t believe in!
Fortunately it was synonymous. My beliefs and thinking, which I had shared for a long long time with my friends and my circles, collided (Ed. note: He means coincided) with theirs, and I was very happy to find that out. I didn’t know that that this was what would happen. The fact of the matter is that I wanted to create a film that would come from their point of view. ESPECIALLY from their points of view. Not that of the politicians. No. The six heads of the Israeli Secret Service, of the Shin Bet.
3200Stories: So, of all the people in the Israeli political or the intelligence establishment who you could have interviewed, these were the ones who were the key figures to get to on this subject?
Moreh: Yes, because this is what they do. The raison d’etre of the Shin Bet is dealing with the Palestinian conflict. They are the ones on the ground. The ones that have the agents. If there is someone who understands the conflict, the consequences of the conflict, who fought there, who tried all the methods in the world to do what ever ‘needed' to be done -- it’s them...They are the specialists.
3200 Stories: Although --
Moreh: Yes, be the devil’s advocate.
3200 Stories: Someone I know commented that there was an absence of any Palestinian voices in the film; clearly that is something you decided not to have.
Moreh: This was an artistic choice: only the heads of Shin Bet. The only ones who have voices in this film are them, and me, when I couldn’t avoid asking a question on camera. And, of course, the archival material that you see.
3200Stories: As an American it’s almost inconceivable, or at least very rare, that an American film maker would get such access to figures so high up in the intelligence community.
Moreh: They said the same thing to me in Israel. It seemed impossible to me also in the beginning. But I said, OK, I’m going to do this, there is a mountain to climb, I’ll start with the ones that I can reach. And this is what I did!
3200Stories: Did you have a sense that perhaps they wanted an opportunity to speak? Your director’s statement says that they have never been interviewed before, for film or TV.
Moreh: Never before. They’ve spoken...but not about their work as heads of Shin Bet. They spoke about politicians, and so on, but AS the heads of that organization and what they did in history: never.
3200Stories: So what gave you the idea that they would speak to you?
Moreh: Like everything in life, it’s timing. I approached them in the beginning of 2009, at the beginning of Netanyahu’s term. From my point of view, and you can quote me, the most dangerous and horrible prime minister in Israel’s history has been Benjamin Netanyahu. And I sensed that this was a good time to speak with them, because I felt a frustration there, that needed to come out. And this is how it started.
3200Stories: So did their transparency surprise you?
Moreh: To some extent, yes. But I think at the end of the day, it depends on the atmosphere that you create as an interviewer. I believe in long, long conversations - I don’t actually believe in interviews as such. I have a list of questions when I come to them, I have done thorough research about each and every one of them, but I come for a conversation. And if at some point they feel there is a connection between us as two human beings, they speak freely. This is what I tried to achieve. I was really, really interested in what they had to tell me.
3200Stories: Your technique reminded me of an American documentary film maker named Errol Morris.
Moreh: Oh, he is my god! Well, not god, but I adore him. One of the reasons that I did this film was after I saw his film, "Fog of War " (Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara) I said to myself, ‘I HAVE to do something that would resemble that.'
3200Stories: I knew it!
Moreh: It’s the best documentary ever done -- beside "The Gatekeepers," of course ! -- but it’s really an amazing piece of work, a landmark. To gain access to someone as intellectual, as intelligent as Robert McNamara [Editors Note: the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, is considered a chief architect of Vietnam War policy]... and when I heard him speak, I thought, 'I have to reach those [Israeli] people who were in those offices with those [Israeli] presidents and prime ministers, and who can give the testimony that reveals those corridors of power.' That’s why I did that.By the way, Errol saw my film at the Telluride Film Festival; he hugged me and said, “Great film!”
3200Stories: Your subjects seem to have no fear of reprisals or consequences of any kind, for saying what they said. I know that they’re all retired now, but is that reflective of Israeli society? And do you think that they said everything that they could have said?
Moreh: Look, we are a democracy. I don’t think there was a time or place when they didn’t want to speak about it...but before, they were more focused on the day to day operational things that can reveal secrets, or methods, which can endanger people, and this was the border at which they said no, they would not speak about it.
But the most daunting task was to shape the 70-80 hours of filmed intervews into the [almost] 100 minutes that you saw. Amazing footage was cut out of the film, but it will come in a five-part series that is going to be on Israeli television, hopefully also on American. It is going to be a book as well, which I’m writing. I spoke with Errol about this, that I think that it’s very important for historians to learn what these men say, first hand, and also for the future. The testimonies are invaluable: first hand quotes by decision makers about how the decisions were made, and why.
3200Stories: There is a point where the subject turns from terrorist acts by Palestinians, to the terrorism of the Israeli settler movement, which is also the responsibility of the Shin Bet. It was a powerful segment.
Moreh: Yes. I was born on the 4th of November, not the year but the day Rabin was assassinated. It was a period when there were clashes over Rabin all over the country. He suffered so much, and seven days before the assassination he had gotten a standing ovation for almost 10 minutes. He signified so much hope to me, of a better Israel. It looked like there was a future, like there was someone who thinks about ‘where should I take this country?' Like there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
A week later, on my 34th birthday, I was there in the square, at the rally where Rabin was speaking. I was so happy: I had two young children, I had been nominated for the Israeli Academy Award for cinematography. It ended as the worst day of my life. So if there is a part in the movie where I still have tears it is the part about his assassination by an Israeli settler, Yigal Amir. I saw this part 7000 times already, and I still have tears in my eyes.
3200Stories: So it would be an understatement to say you must have strong feelings about the settler movment.
Moreh: Look. I think that Yigal Amir, the murderer, is a tool. I think the people who are most responsible -- those extreme rabbis who pledged for his death -- are out in the open since then, continuing to spread their poison. I think that it's horrible, and that if there is a disease in Israeli society, it’s them.
3200Stories: My impression, as an American, of course, is that Israel is a society very dominated by fear.
Moreh: I absolutely agree. I am surprised also to find that fear here, among the Jewish society.
3200Stories: How you think your film will be received here, by American Jews, and others?
Moreh: Look, I’ll tell you what I feel. After the Holocaust, down deep in every Jew there is this feeling, 'It will never happen to us again.' And the promise that it will never happen to us again, lies within the state of Israel. The state of Israel is a safe haven that we have, that we have to cherish ... because whenever it will happen in the world, in the States, or in Europe again, we have that place where we can go that the Jews in the 1940s couldn’t; we have that now. So we have to protect it no matter what.
But what they don’t understand, is that by saying ‘we will have to protect it by any means,' they are hindering the State of Israel. Because when you don’t allow yourself to criticize what in my point of view, and also the points of view of the six heads of the Shin Bet, is a path that leads to the destruction of the state of Israel, that is, continuing the Occupation, this equals -- in my point of view and theirs -- the devastation of the State of Israel. Only that. The fact that the Jews are afraid to say this, because they feel that there is the safe haven which we have to save - is very troubling for me, and very saddening. Because I think that you should judge by your own terms.
That said, the film opened in Israel two and a half weeks ago (at the time of interview); it is now in 13 cinemas, and the screenings are sold out a week ahead; it’s unbelievable.
3200Stories: As I said, this seems to be a film many people have been waiting for.
Moreh: Thanks, I hope that this is true. You know when you start a film, you just have an idea of a message which you want to tell. Relentlessly I followed that. And after I finished the interviews, I knew that I had dynamite in my hands. The only task was to shape it and bring the visual aspect to it that will match the power of the interviews.
3200Stories: So people clearly want to see it in Israel - has there been any critical reaction to it?
Moreh: I think that the far right and the far left will have a problem with the film. The far right will say that it’s antisemitic, that it’s against the Israelis and against the Jews, blah, blah, blah. The far left will say that it’s right wing, that it cleanses those horrible masters who tortured people -- but I’m not concerned with them. I’m concerned with the people in the center, center right, center left -- the sane people.
3200Stories: You talked about the future. One of the strongest messages of the film is that the policy of repression in the Occupied Territories is not working, that it cannot work and that it is poisoning the well of Israel’s ethical standing in the world and within its own society. So -- what do you think will happen to Israel if the government persists in the present policy? How do you see Israeli society...developing, if it continues on Netanyahu’s path?
Moreh: A very bleak and dark future. We will definitely have more violence; the signs are there now of a possible Third Intifada; I can feel the grey clouds in the air, I can smell them. Small incidents that are occurring now -- it’s beginning. I see increasing racism in some Israeli youth. I think that with Netanyahu as the prime minister, both societies are doomed to bleed eachother to “victories of seeing -you- suffer” -- that phrase which became one chapter in my movie - basically that violence creates violence, which creates more animosity.
One of the best quotes in (Errol Morris’) film is something like, “Learn from your misakes. Do not do the same thing again.” It seems that the Israelis and Palestinians do not learn , and so they are doomed to repeat those mistakes again and again, with cycles of violence getting more and more violent, more horrific. Many people will leave Israel.
And yet I'm not thinking that the Palestinians are the knights in shining armor; no, far from it. The Palestinians, as Abba Eban said, “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” But this is true for both sides, and it costs life. This is the most horrible thing -- that if nothing changes? More people will die. This is what will happen.
I think there is only one solution, and his name is Barack Obama. With his will, and his mind, and his power, he can move it forward. The one person on earth right now that can change the reality is him. The Israelis and Palesinians don’t have this insight. If he waits for them to solve the problem by themselves, nothing will happen. He has to have an iron fist of a hundred megatons in one hand, and a hundred megaton carrot in the other hand, and come to them with that carrot and that iron fist and tell them--
3200Stories: To do what?
Moreh: Everyone knows what the solution will look like. Take it or leave it. Whoever takes the solution will get the carrot. And it is a fat carrot; you can live on it a long time. All the international community will support that, will be happy to give to that carrot. And on the other hand, there is the iron fist -- as important as the carrot. If you don’t accept that - this is what we will do. And he knows what to do. He is one of the smartest guys that there are today in the business of being a leader - if not THE smartest one. He is an amazing leader. One who thinks before he acts, who has the feelings of a real human being. He’s not a machine. I would like to import him to Israel as our PM.
This I have learned: If there is something that has caused catastrophes for the Jews throughout their history, it has always been the extremists, including the extremist rabbis. Without being pragmatic, without seeing the world in front of you, we are heading towards catastrophe with eyes wide shut, to use Stanley Kubrick’s title.
To see the official trailer for the film visit http://www.sonyclassics.com/thegatekeepers/.